Algebra is often viewed as a critical educational milestone in a student’s academic journey. The option of math acceleration--any course taught at a faster pace or with more compressed mathematical information than the standard courses for that grade--allows students to complete Algebra as early as their seventh grade year. Following the 2010 implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in California, there are a variety of math course options available to students in middle school. This report examines specifically how the new CCSS affect math acceleration in middle school, focusing on the decision facing school districts about whether and how to offer special course options for students with the aptitude and proficiency to take more advanced coursework.
The issue of math acceleration is especially important to our client, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF). SVEF works in the Bay Area to improve access to math and science programs for all students. Their mission is to leverage partnerships and resources for public education, so all students can realize their full potential. The impact of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) on students can greatly affect their mission and vision. We have investigated the following questions on their behalf:
- Should middle schools offer accelerated math, or should this option not be available until high school?
- If a district chooses to offer accelerated math in middle school, how should it be implemented?
- How will access to the accelerated option, both across and within districts, be distributed among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and students from different racial/ethnic groups?
While this report will assist Silicon Valley Education Foundation with their goals, the answers to these questions will be valuable for all educational organizations working in the Bay Area including school districts and other education non-profits. To begin answering these questions, we drew upon past math literature and in depth interviews with educational policymakers, school district administrators, teachers and parents. This led us to devise several policy alternatives and choose appropriate evaluative criteria, resulting in our final recommendations.
Prior to the adoption of the CCSS, the “Algebra for All” movement in California set the expectation that all students should complete Algebra in eighth grade. By the end of the 2010 school year, over 60 percent of eighth grade students were enrolled in Algebra or a more advanced course. Many of these students, however, were academically unprepared to enroll in Algebra and as a result did not achieve proficiency. Conversely, some minority students who did achieve proficiency in eighth grade Algebra were not given the opportunity to advance in high school. Thus, the Algebra for All movement demonstrated that in order for students to be successful they need to be placed correctly. As school districts now work to fully implement the CCSS, placement methods will play a key role in determining the level of academic success for students as well as addressing equity concerns.
One of the main effects of CCSS is the change in pathways available to students. Mathematical pathways differ based on pace and subject content. Schools place students based on their level of proficiency and aptitude. The non-accelerated pathway in middle school follows the Common Core middle school sequence of Math 6, Math 7, and Math 8 in sixth, seventh and eighth grade respectively. If acceleration occurs in middle school, schools offer compacted Math 6, Math 7 and Math 8 courses allowing students to take the first year of high school math by eighth grade. Regardless of the course, all students will be assessed on the standards outlined in CCSS for their respective grade.
During our analysis we outlined three different policy alternatives: (1) no math acceleration in middle school, (2) acceleration with limited supportive policies and (3) acceleration with full supportive policies. Supportive policies are educational policies that are essential for having a successful acceleration, which include: professional development, curriculum materials, tutoring and appropriate placement mechanisms. We evaluated each of the three policy alternatives using three criteria: academic outcomes, equity and practicality.
There are several main findings from our analysis. These findings are based on a number of assumptions. First, our analysis of each alternative assumes all districts implement the same policy. Second, under the acceleration with full supportive policies alternative, all districts would equally fund supportive policies. Both of these assumptions have important implications for our findings. In terms of practicality, acceleration with full policies is better in terms of political feasibility, but has the highest financial cost and time requirements for implementation. Math acceleration with full supportive policies dominates in academic outcomes and equity. Also, math acceleration with only partial supportive policies would actually be worse for equity.
Overall, we found that school districts in California are faced with many difficult decisions regarding curriculum implementation as it concerns the new CCSS for mathematics. While a a great deal remains unknown about the future outcomes of Common Core implementation, we make the following recommendations:
- The focus of California’s math policy should not be to establish a single sequence for student courses, but it should focus on placing students in the correct courses that they are academically prepared to take.
- All middle schools should have an accelerated math program that uses fair placement strategies. We predict that the correct placement of students will lead to better academic outcomes for all students. This is of particular importance to our client’s objective of having Silicon Valley be number one in the percentage of high school graduates academically prepared to complete post-secondary education, measured by A-G requirements completion rate.
Once the Smarter Balanced testing results for several years are available, we can revisit this issue to conduct a quantitative analysis comparing the outcomes of acceleration and no acceleration policies.